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Mark Riley: PM Scott Morrison faces uphill battle with election strategy

A hum of giddy excitement rose around Kirribilli House as Scott and Jenny Morrison prepared to welcome their guests.

The staff buzzed hither and thither, straightening the curtains, wiping down the tables, picking errant flecks from the carpet, ensuring the Gothic old girl would pass the most stringent of white-glove tests if required.

This was a big moment for the country’s newest first couple. They were desperate to ensure everything was just so.

“It was like your parents were visiting your house for the first time,” Morrison confided to advisers gathered at The Lodge for Christmas drinks this week.

But it wasn’t his parents who walked through the gates that sunny Sydney afternoon. It was John and Janette Howard, the exalted elder couple of the Liberal Party.

It was a proud moment of respectful reciprocation. The Morrisons were now hosting the Howards in the very house in which the Howards had hosted the Morrisons all those years ago when the now-Prime Minister was NSW State director of the Liberal Party.

Things were different then. The party was reasonably united. Not completely. It was never quite that. But it was much more united than it is at present.

The past five years have amplified just how skilful Howard had been in holding together what Sir Robert Menzies called the “broad church” of the Liberal Party.

Yes, the fact that Peter Costello never took a real crack at challenging him had helped. Costello came close a couple of times. When the moment presented itself, though, he didn’t have the ticker. “You should never trust a man who sits down to pee,” one of Costello’s female colleagues once observed to me in bitter emasculation.

But the real artistry of Howard’s survival instincts against the threats of ideological division and individual ambition are only now being fully appreciated.

The shadow of a challenger is a problem Morrison doesn’t have. But it also seems to be the only problem he doesn’t have. He is labouring beneath the shadows of every other hideous dybbuk that could conceivably haunt a political leader: backbenchers jumping ship and others threatening to hurl themselves overboard; a cataclysmic factional war between the wets and the dries; ministers speaking out in the hope of saving their own skins; an angry electorate that has walloped the Victorian Liberals and can’t wait to do the same federally; and a series of self-inflicted political wounds on policy perpetrated by Morrison himself.

What to do?

The great temptation would be to curl up in a ball and gently rock back and forward while humming Chopin’s Sonata No. 2 in B-flat minor.

Short of that, he could use the long flight back from the G20 tomorrow night to have a cold hard look at himself and his strategy. It is time for some brutal self-assessment.

The only thing Morrison’s got going for himself at the moment is himself. The coalition’s primary and two-party-preferred numbers are in the toilet, but Morrison’s personal rating as preferred prime minister is good. It’s not brilliant, but it’s good.

His popularity has held up despite his Jack the Lad routine, trying to be the people’s Prime Minister. It’s as clear as yonder Venus in her glimmering sphere that he needs to tone the cobber-digger-bluey stuff down, if not abandon the routine altogether.

Voters want a statesman. Not a complete stuffed shirt. But someone who projects the gravitas of the role with an air somewhere above the guy who runs the surf club kiosk. Morrison has that in him. He should let it out more often.

Presentation is important, but the larger issue is strategy. And that’s not looking too flash.

Morrison’s announcement of his grand election plan on Tuesday was hijacked by the simultaneous defection of Julia Banks. That was bad enough. But the strategy itself stinks.

Malcolm Turnbull’s plan was to sit tight over the Christmas break and make an announcement the day after Australia Day for an early March poll, getting in before the NSW election.

This is a strategy Morrison should think deeply about adopting. It would bring the election forward two months. But waiting two months at this stage isn’t going to save him. And it could easily increase the pain.

Bringing the Budget forward to April as a launching pad into a mid-May election might look good on paper, but it is fraught with danger.

The Government will hand Labor its entire political blueprint in the Budget papers and, more importantly, reveal the complete state of the Federal finances.

That just allows Labor to rip the measures apart and redirect all that fully accounted money towards its own plans, which, no doubt, will promise bigger spending in more effective and politically attractive ways.

None of the Budget measures will have been legislated in time for the campaign, anyway. So, what’s the point?

Ministers tell me the strategy is to seize control of the agenda on Budget day, a moment when governments necessarily attract voters’ full attention, and then keep hold of it to shape the political discussion around economic management for the six or seven weeks until election day.

It is a kind of “big bang” approach, laying it all out in the open in one day and then backing in the messages all the way to the polls.

Sounds good in theory, but in practice, theory often doesn’t work.

The strategy requires unity of voice and purpose, uncommon discipline among the ranks and a tactical acuity of Hannibal and all his elephants — none of which is possessed by this Government.

Morrison’s already played his economic trump card, revealing the Budget will contain the first surplus in 12 years. But that was lost when Julia Banks so spectacularly broke the banks of Government unity.

That leaves income tax cuts as the Budget centrepiece, just as Labor has suspected for the past two years. No surprise there, then. And the element of surprise is important.

Pulling on an earlier election might just catch Labor and the electorate on the hop. It would also allow Morrison to roll out his promises in a more orderly and consistent fashion, aiming to deprive Labor of oxygen and command the campaign agenda.

Howard tried the “big bang” approach when he was in a similar position to Morrison in 2007. He promised an arterial gush of spending, $9.5 billion in 12 minutes, at his campaign launch.

The result? His government was wiped out and he became the first sitting prime minister to be punted from his own seat since Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1929.

One imagines that impolite piece of history wasn’t among the topics of discussion when the Howards dropped in on the Morrisons at Kirribilli.

But, perhaps, it should have been.

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